The Ford Mustang. Stylish, sporty, and affordable, few cars are so instantly recognizable or widely loved. The Mustang has been a consistent best-seller and an American icon. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the classic American car, and it has been one wild ride.
In 1960, Ford’s marketer Lee Iacocca proposed a new type of car. Something unique that young buyers would love. Bob Casey, former curator of The Henry Ford museum said that Iacocca wanted something “sporty, but not a sports car.” Ford decided to create a vehicle that had the sleek and sexy looks of a sport car, with the price of a coupe. To keep the car affordable, they designed it to share much of its engineering with one of Ford’s other cars, the compact Falcon. They hoped their innovative approach would set their new car apart from the pack.
Ford’s new car was introduced to the public at the New York World’s Fair on April 17, 1964. They named it the Mustang, after the World War II fighter plane. Ford hoped the car would do well, and expected to sell 100,000 of them in its first year. That first day, they sold 22,000. Within 18 months, they had sold one million. It was clear that the Mustang was going to be a success. According to Colin Comer, an automotive historian, “People were ready for a change and all of a sudden Ford comes out with this affordable, obtainable car. It was an aspirational car that people could afford. Very few times in history has there been a car with so much buzz and excitement that you could actually buy.” The country went wild for the sleek and fun-to-drive muscle car with the affordable price of $2,368 (about $18,000 today).
The first version of this classic car featured rear seats, a long hood, and short trunk styling. The car’s most iconic features included a running horse logo, side scallops along its flanks, and taillights divided into three sections. It was available as either a notchback coupe or convertible, with many different engine choices. Ford offered a long list of options, allowing buyers to customize their cars to an unprecedented extent. The Mustang could be whatever you wanted, whether that was a coupe for cruising or a powerful racecar.
It was not long before the car made it to the silver screen in the films Goldfinger, Bullit, Gone in 60 Seconds, and Diamonds are Forever. Driven by glamorous movie stars in epic chase scenes, the Mustang captured America’s hearts and imaginations.
With each revision, Ford made the Mustang larger and more powerful. In the 1970s, tightening emission regulations and an oil embargo forced Ford to take a new direction. Attention had shifted from high-horsepower V8s to smaller imported cars. In response, Ford introduced the light and sporty Mustang II. Even though it was underpowered and poorly designed, it sold very well to buyers looking for more economical options. In spite of the hate the car receives today, Motor Trend named it 1974 car of the year.
In 1979 Ford revamped the car, removing the ‘II’ from its name and entirely updating its platform. The looks were angular, but there was little about it that looked intrinsically like a Mustang. In addition, there was little power under the hood. The only available V8 engine in 1980 had 119 horsepower, the smallest ever offered in a Mustang. In 1982, you could finally get a Mustang GT with the 5.0-liter V8 engine to back up its sporty looks. An even more powerful engine was made not for the public, but for law enforcement. During that first year, the California Highway patrol bought 400 of them. Other law enforcement agencies soon began using them as pursuit vehicles. Overall, the revamp was most definitely a success. This generation of Mustangs stayed in production for an impressive 15 model years.
In the twilight of the 1980s, Ford was unsure if they would keep the Mustang in their lineup. By the early 1990s, Ford realized that would be a major mistake; the Mustang was the car the entire world associated with them. Ford decided to revitalize the Mustang by replacing the GT with the SN-95 in 1994. It invoked the best parts of the original Mustang’s style with its classic long hood, short deck, and sculptured side scoops. The SN-95 also drove more smoothly than any of the previous Mustangs. This contemporary interpretation was extremely popular. In fact, it was so popular that Ford has since continued to combine modern style with classic Mustang details.
The car’s next major redesign came in 2005 with the S-197, when Ford changed its platform for only the third time in its history. The S-197 featured an aesthetic called “retro-futurism”. It was an instant classic, and in 2005 half of all sports cars sold in the United States were Mustangs. In 2013, Ford introduced the current sixth generation of Mustangs, featuring a new independent rear suspension system. Today’s Mustangs continue to evoke the essence of the classic 1960 cars with a style that looks to the future.
More than 9 million Mustangs have been sold since 1964. It is the only original pony car to remain in uninterrupted production. Very few cars have been so featured in popular culture, and no other car is so quintessentially American. Even those who are not car fans recognize the Mustang when they see it on the road. It has been fifty years since the Ford Mustang was first unveiled, and it is still galloping along.